Stepping into Q Clothier in west Little Rock is like setting foot into a fashion vortex, filled with top-end custom suits, crisp button-up shirts and designer sweaters. With its dark wood, recessed shelving highlighting the suits within, the studied décor, including elk and moose antlers and a well-stocked bar, Q is a vision of what men’s clothing and style could be.
And that vision is all Paul Rainwater’s. Striding out from the back of the store, Rainwater is quick to welcome visitors, casually pointing out the colorful wall of ties and the 1930s barware, as he leads you deeper into the store.
It’s all done with an elegant flair, a grace that belies Rainwater’s long history in men’s clothing. He’s been in the industry since 1974, starting at the family store, Rainwater’s, in Fort Smith. He ran the shop for decades before decamping to Little Rock in 2012, operating independently for several years and seeing clients by appointment. In 2018, he seized an opportunity to open Q Clothier at the burgeoning Promenade at Chenal.
Once in the back of Q Clothier, the magic begins. That’s where Rainwater brings out the tools of his trade — books of fabric swatches, style books and more that help him and his clients conjure up the perfect custom suit. This consultation determines the look and feel of the suit, from the suit fabric to the look of the lining to the thread color and beyond.
But lately, there’s been less call for suits and the traditional clothing that has largely defined the workplace dress code for men in the last half century. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many have spent more time in front of a computer screen on Zoom calls than in a conference room.
As COVID-19 cases began rising and the nation prepared for a shutdown in March 2020, companies began sending employees home to work remotely. Freed from the need to set foot outside of the house and seeing colleagues only through video messaging platforms, casual clothing quickly became the norm, even to the point of parody.
Months later, companies across the nation still navigate the process of returning to the workplace. With virus case numbers continuing to rise, it may be an ongoing challenge, even with the arrival of two vaccines. However, the one issue that is not going away is the impact of casual business dress.
For Rainwater, this casual dress code is an ongoing trend that has been accelerated by the pandemic. He takes a historical perspective, pointing out that the American workplace has been steadily losing formality over the last century, going from formal wear in the office to the suit that has defined the 20th century office to the more nebulous dress code of today.
“At this very moment, a lot of men are trying to figure out what their future work environment is going to be. It’s in flux right now. A lot of traditional, suit-wearing personnel are at home. They are trying to calculate, in the coming months and years, how are they going to be working,” Rainwater said. “The general way of saying it is that things are much more casual than they have ever been in the history of America.”
Will this trend toward casual continue? It’s a major question for Rainwater and others in his industry, who are charting these choppy waters together, trying to determine how the office dress code will be defined in the years to come.
“It remains to be seen, but I think the casual trend that has been going on for several years now, and the term ‘business casual,’ the casual part is stronger than ever. The business part is changing,” he said.
Rainwater isn’t the only one seeing this trend. In Northwest Arkansas, Osage Creek owner Mark Alldredge has been following it for years. Before starting Osage Creek, he worked at Walmart’s corporate office, where he saw everyday office wear shift to dark-washed blue jeans and a blazer for men, with sportcoats for meetings.
“It was already moving that way, and COVID sped that up. Once everybody starts going back to work, I would expect it to pop back some, not just for work but when people start going out to eat, etc.,” he said.
During the pandemic, loungewear has become increasingly popular for Alldredge’s clientele, but he expects a return to button-up shirts, polos and quarter-zip pullovers. As far as suits, Alldredge does not even sell them in the store — although he can order them when necessary, mostly for weddings or funerals, he said.
Jeff Ladyman, the co-owner of Orville’s Men’s Store in Jonesboro, has noticed the same move toward the pullover and button-up style. His store has continued to sell suits even during the move toward more casual style, although the demand for full, custom suits has dropped.
“With things at hand, it’s more low-key. Not a lot of people are getting into the suits and sportcoats,” Ladyman said. “A lot of these people are working from home and practicing safe distancing.
“Since the pandemic happened, not a lot of people are dropping money for custom suits. They are going toward the stock, program suits — that you can get nice fabric, a nice quality suit — for about half of the price.”
But as far as a return to the days of wearing sportcoats and slacks every day to the office? Allredge said “there’s not a chance” of seeing this return on a wide scale, as the winds of change have already been blowing these styles out of the offices and conference rooms across the state and nation.
While he doesn’t dispute the prevailing move toward casual, Rainwater isn’t writing off the more formal clothing of yesteryear. He contends that there will still be “pockets of dressiness” in the workplace, both out of necessity for special occasions and for those individuals who want to gain a special advantage through their clothing.
“It’s a strategic move for somebody to dress up. It has reversed. It used to be that when you were a rebel, you dressed casual. Now you are a rebel if you wear a full-on suit. There will be some guys, on purpose and by design, go dressy to set themselves apart. They will be considered the renegades; they will be considered the eye-catchingdifferent ones because they’re not just wearing casual clothes. They’re dressing up,” he said.
This desire for men to set themselves apart is the biggest trend Alldredge has seen recently, although more are using color to make a statement. Men’s clothing colors have long trended towards the monochromatic blues, grays and blacks, but he is seeing increased risk-taking with color selection. The most popular color of sport coat at Osage Creek, according to Alldredge, is dark purple.
“It’s not boring. Everybody has a blue blazer. Everybody has a black blazer. They want something that has a little pop of color. Crazy socks are on trend. It’s different, and different is popular,” Alldredge said.
Bigger, bolder colors and patterns have also influenced the slightly more formal sportcoats. Looking back on his career, Rainwater sold mostly navy or gray sport coats, but he’s now getting more requests for looks that likely would have raised eyebrows years ago. Customers are asking for greens, burgundies and light blues for their sport coats and blazers as well as bombastic patterns like large plaids.
“By far, the biggest trend in the sportcoats I’m selling are the big plaids. I’m selling window panes in plaids like it hasn’t been sold since the ’70s,” Rainwater said. “People are ready because it’s more casual. They are ready to have it be a little more colorful and bolder.”
While some men have enjoyed the freedom afforded by relaxed dress codes, others have leaned on experts, like Alldredge and Rainwater, to help them find that perfect medium ground.
Mr. Wicks: The Gentleman’s Shop in Little Rock is helping men out during the pandemic to create the “work from home wardrobe” that, as owner Mark Evans said, can make them look good while still being casual.
“That’s what we’re going to be doing this year. We want to tell guys, ‘Here’s how you can make a pair of pants and create seven different outfits.’ You can look professional, and you don’t have to look like you just rolled out of bed, but it’s comfortable and casual,” he said.
The danger of the casual look is the potential of appearing unprofessional. Evans has seen more men buying loungewear during the pandemic, but he has worked to ensure that these clothes work for them. For him, the pandemic is not an opportunity for men to embrace their inner slob but to continue being trendsetters while being comfortable in their home offices.
“There has to be a level of professionalism in every style of dress. There needs to be a level of professionalism in guys wearing traditional suits, but there also needs to be that same level of professionalism in that man who wears casual clothing to work every day. They need to look professional,” Evans said.
No matter what men are wearing during the workday, these clothes perform the same function, according to Rainwater. They remain the frontline tools for men that allow them to influence others’ split-second perceptions of them.
For Rainwater, his job is getting men in the right clothes to accomplish their objective, whether that’s making the big pitch in the boardroom or an average day filling out Excel spreadsheets.
Anymore, it’s not enough to wear a suit to work every day or to toss all of your suits out and wear jeans and a polo. Modern office wear is much more fluid and adaptable to the needs of the wearer, according to Rainwater.
“If you only have jeans and nothing else, you’re not really prepared. But if you only have suits and nothing else, you’re not really prepared either. You’ve got to have both. They’re tools, pieces of equipment,” Rainwater said.
Now, it’s all about choosing the right tool for the right situation.